Sunday, 9 April 2017

Edward Thomas (2/3/1878 - 9/4/17) - A Celebration of this Anglo Welsh Poet a Century after his Death.

This day marks the 100th anniversary of the death of 39 year old Anglo Welsh poet Edward Thomas at the Battle of Arras, who fell on what was then Easter Monday. He left a body of largely unpublished work that has since earned him a place as  one of Britain's greatest poets. He has since  become one of the most widely read English language poets of the 20th century.Nearly all of his poems were written in the three years between 1914 and his death in 1917. Sixteen of the 60-odd poems that later made up his collected works were produced in an incredible burst of creativity in just 20 days in January 1915.
Born in London to Welsh parents in 1878,his father, Philip Henry Thomas, was a Welsh speaker from Tredegar. Thomas made frequent trips back to Swansea and the Carmarthenshire areas of south Wales to stay with relatives. He had strong friendships with Welsh-language poets  and later attended Lincoln College, Oxford from 1897 to 1900, where he was tutored by Owen M Edwards, one of the most significant figures in nonconformist Welsh culture.
Edwards awakened Thomas’s sense of Welsh national identity, and after graduating he asked his former tutor “to suggest any kind of work … to help you and the Welsh cause”. Three years earlier, Edwards had called for “a literature that will be Engish in language and Welsh in spirit." and it seems that Thomas took up his challenge, declaring that: “in English I might do something by writing of Wales”.
Though he wrote in the English language; and almost  all of his poems were written about the English countryside, but his odes to melancholy, and longing seem to have a Welsh source. Throughout his short life he was inordinately proud of his Welsh heritage, and because of this it led him to doubt whether he could truly be "English". He felt that living in England
was “like a homesickness, but stronger”, and the closest he could feel to belonging was by spending time in nature: “I was home: one nationality/ We had, I and the birds that sang,/ One memory” (Home [3] 4-6)..The scenery of Wales and the legends of the country affected Thomas deeply. He wrote about them in various letters and in prose books such as Beautiful Wales and in his sole attempt at fiction, The Happy Go-Lucky Morgans. He also lamented the lack of a widely circulated collection of Welsh folk tales, something that he himself put right in 1911 when he published Celtic Stories an anthology of Welsh and Irish folk stories..He would often sing to his children and to writer friends such as Eleanor Farjeon, old Welsh folk songs and was deeply conscious of the cadences of Welsh words. As he wrote:

"Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings."

After marrying Helen Noble he found work writing travel books and critical reviews. His need to support his young family and wife resulting in him sacrificing creative writing for this hack work.Thomas took the Welsh connection a stage further by naming his children Mervyn, Myfanwy and Bronwen. Thomas had a troubled life however. A tormented soul with feelings of unfulfillment and self loathing convinced that he was a failure in both his marriage and career. Thomas was prone to periods of deep depression and anxiety and flirted with suicide, aggravated by his repressed creativity and creative frustration. Because of his self pitying he could also be very cruel to his ever loving wife . ' Your sympathy and your love for me are both hateful to me , but for God's sake don't  stand there , pale and suffering.' Thomas evidently felt there was some flaw in his personality that meant he was unable to respond to people as others did. “I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years,” he told the haplessly doting Helen. When not entrapped by his more melancholic bitter moods he was more than capable of showing a more gentle and caring side, extended walks through the English countryside not only provided him with material for his writing but also represented freedom from his inner demons.
Through his work as a critic he became a champion of the American poet Robert Frost and they became friends. It was Frost who seeing his nature inspired prose and the English countryside, suggested to Thomas that he turn his hand to writing poetry. This unleashed a torrent of words , which at the same time lifted his depression enabling him to  write some of the most subtle and compelling words of the 20th Century. He had thought of moving to America with is family to devote himself to writing poetry, but alas , it was not to be, instead on July 15, 1915 after hiding his diabetes which would have led to his rejection, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to France, just as his work was getting recognition and appearing in literary journals .He wrote a series of  haunting poems during his training. All though he is often referred to as a war poet , few of his  poems actually deal with his war experiences.Nevertheless, arguably the war overshadows all of his poetry, even when he is  focusing on an aspect of  nature, such as a bird or a tree. His sense of the fragility of nature, as well as its beauty, is in a sense intensified by the knowledge of the war and exacerbated by a growing knowledge of his own fragility and mortality. I think that acknowledgement of the worst is something that can  still resonate deeply with us today
He was killed after he had left his dugout to fill his pipe, a shell passed so close that the rush of air stopped his heart , and he fell to the ground not a mark on his body.He left the world his poems which  are informed by a distinctly modern vision of doubt, alienation, and human limitation.deep emotion. Beautiful poems about nature but also revealing his willingness to grapple with difficulty and uncertainty, revealing his sensitivity , and bleak honesty,still as poignant, powerful and moving as when they were first written.His great friend Robert Frost wrote " his poetry is so very brave, so unconsciously brave.' Ted Hughes once described this great poet as 'the father of us all.' His work will  always be cherished by me. The following is a selection of some of his fine poems.

Like the touch of Rain - Edward Thomas

Like the touch of rain she was
On a man's flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
Has taken him by surprise:

With the love of the storm he burns,
He sings, he laughs, well I know how,
But forgets when he returns
As I shall not forget her 'Go now'.

Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again.

How at Once - Edward Thomas

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

Beauty - Edward Thomas

 WHAT does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph-
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.' Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there

The Sorrow of True Love - Edward Thomas

The sorrow of true love is a great sorrow
And true love parting blackens a bright morrow:
Yet almost they equal joys, since their despair
Is but hope blinded by its tears, and clear
Above the storm the heavens wait to be seen.
But greater sorrow from less love has been
That can mistake lack of despair for hope
And knows not tempest and the perfect scope
Of summer, but a frozen drizzle perpetual
Of drops that from remorse and pity fall
And cannot ever shine in the sun or thaw,
Removed eternally from the sun's law.

The Owl - Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Words - Edward Thomas

Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
Sometimes -
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through -
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings, -
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire, -
And the villages there, -
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.                         

Out in the Dark - Edward Thomas

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

In Memorium ( Easter  1915)  - Edward Thomas

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Further Reading :-

 Edward Thomas: Collected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2004.

Now All  Roads lead to France : The Last Years of Edward Thomas   - Mathew Hollis

Edward Thomas : From Adlestrop to Arras - Jean Moorcraft Wlison , Bloomsbury,


  1. " his poetry is so very brave, so unconsciously brave.'...I love this quote...x